What is a design system?

A design system is a living ecosystem that serves the teams working on deploying products. As a central repository, it can be a combination of a coded components, design guides, brand assets and rules of engagement. This is usually an independent project run by a dedicated team who maintain the overall repository, code all the components, deploy updates and create all the assets for consumption by the teams across an organization.

The following are some of the most common categories within a design system.

Styleguide Commonly referred to as a living style guide is a visual reference of all the design assets that make up a brand and it’s supporting media and include things like colour, type, layout and other assets to help the design team consistently utilize the brand assets. This is constantly growing as more and more assets are added and the brand evolves.

Visual Language The brand will share the visual assets and their usage to best communicate effectively across media and contain a variety of produced assets such as video, icons, illustrations, and photography.

Design Language Every great design starts with a definition of the values and the standards to which a design effectively comes together and communicates seamlessly across multiple media. Principles are shared to help teams better understand why decisions were made and how best to apply them.

Pattern Library A coded repository of atomic-like assets for developers to easily consume to reduce the amount of churn and repeated assets that need to align across a project and function in a consistent way. This is usually html and css and some basic javascript. It can be, but not necessarily include complicated coded assets such as angularJS, jQuery and React, as technology changes so quickly code might be redundant before going live. The coded assets are both visual, functional and can be executable.

Voice & Tone Effective content and communication requires a brands voice and tone, while also including guidelines on how to effectively add content to communicate consistently across media.

Brand Guidelines Brand assets can be downloaded and appropriate guidelines shared to ensure consistent brand usage and avoid dilution of the brand and incorrect deployment creating confusion when developing brand assets.

Added to that, guidelines, legal documentation, how to contribute, get support and update logs are essential to maintaining a design system.

I hope you found this very basic guideline useful. Design systems are ever increasing in their detail and functionality and I’m sure in the future I will explain in more detail all the new features you can add and why you would need them. Whether you’re a designer, a developer or running teams and projects, a design system has to be the best way to create a consistent product, increase productivity and align your teams to your companies product vision.